Scrappy as always, Mercy putting together strong season

The most coveted award on the Mercy High School girls’ basketball squad doesn’t necessarily go to the team’s best player, or to its leading scorer or rebounder. Nope — the prize that will earn you the most respect requires floor burns, bruises and a knack for diving on the hardwood at every opportunity.

Called the Miss Hustle award, the honor is given out annually to the player who racks up the most “Hustle Points,” a statistical category tracked by Skippers’ coach Michael Gutierrez. Players are awarded marks for forcing jump balls, winning 50-50 opportunities, diving on the floor and any other act that requires grit.

While other coaches dole out similarly inspiring platitudes as a way of lifting player morale, for Gutierrez, hustle is crucial to the success of his perennially undersized squad.

“We’re never going to have the super athletic players, or a ton of size,” said Gutierrez, who has been the head coach at the all-girls school for 15 years. “We have to hustle on every play, we have to use our quickness, and we have to get out and run if we’re going to win games.”

Tucked in the southwest corner of San Francisco, Mercy is a small, Division IV school that consistently falls below the radar of the local prep sports scene. It currently competes in a conference — the West Bay Athletic League — that doesn’t include any other city schools, and it lacks the historical pedigree of other Catholic institutions like Saint Ignatius or Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Yet Gutierrez has built a laudable program, leading the Skippers to more than 250 wins during his coaching career. His latest squad stands at 12-6 overall, and second in the WBAL-Skyline league at 5-1, following a 60-44 triumph over King’s Academy of Sunnyvale on Tuesday night.

“The biggest thing is convincing these girls that they can compete at the highest level,” said Gutierrez, who has just one player over 6-foot on his team. “Our girls mostly come from the B Teams at the [Catholic Youth Organization] levels, but we love that type of player. They’re scrappy, and they hustle and they work hard. My job is to give them confidence and let them know they’re a top-level player.”

The Skippers are led this year by senior guard Kathleen Bufka, whom Gutierrez calls the fastest player he’s coached in 23 years (counting junior varsity) at the school. The 5-foot-4 senior — also a standout on the track team — leads the Skippers in scoring at 12 points per game, while racking up an eye-popping 4.9 steals per contest. Mercy is also getting contributions from stat-sheet-stuffing freshman Amira Lama, who is averaging 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Senior sharpshooter Megan Jajeh, and juniors Adriana Zamora and Brianna Remo round out a strong supporting cast.

Although his team is off to another impressive start, Gutierrez said things could have been even better this year, but the Skippers have had to deal with injuries and academic issues that kept a few key players off the court. Additionally, Mercy is integrating seven new players this year after losing several key seniors from last season’s 15-win team that advanced to the Central Coach Section Division IV playoffs.

That squad captured a share of the WBAL-Skyline league title, and, after a few early bumps in the road, Gutierrez said his team is poised to repeat that feat this year. With the new players starting to gel with the returning members, the Skippers are embracing the frenetic, hard-nosed basketball that has been a staple of Mercy for years.

“I’m always amazed at how hard these kids play,” said Gutierrez. “The demands here are pretty high—but when these girls buy in, it’s a great feeling.”

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